Big Systems

The Deniers

Global warming heretics

About 99% of the scientists involved in climate studies, paleontology, atmospheric chemistry, and planetary ecology agree on the presence of human-caused global warming. We call that a scientific consensus. But in every science there are a few heretics who don’t agree on the consensus. That 1% dissent is what powers science forward. In fact, tolerating heretics is what makes science different from religion. The dissent is usually wrong, but every once in a while if you don’t kill it off, it corrects the consensus.

What should we do with the 1% who dissent about global warming? By logic, we should embrace them, but currently “deniers” of global warming have become demonized, which is a sign that global warming has become slightly religious. Which is a shame because many global warming skeptics are not crackpots or paid shills, but first-class prestigious scientists with a minority view.

Throughout its history, science usually advances from the edges. Heretics should be cherished for forcing edges to the center. The most respected scientific global warming heretics have been rounded up in this very readable book, The Deniers. Significantly, many of the eminent scientists included here don’t call themselves deniers at all. They say, “I believe global warming is evidenced in all these other fields; Except in the field that I am expert in, the evidence is totally bogus.” One by one the field-specific heretics make their case. And a number of them are rather persuasive. But at the moment there is no unified alternative theory of climate change, so the critique of global warming amounts to exposing holes in the current science. Any good scientific theory will have holes.

Until the heretics can change the consensus, we should proceed with the remedies that make sense no matter how climate change rolls out: getting off oil and coal, upping conservation, drastically increasing efficiency, expanding solar, wind, nuclear, and embracing cities while protecting wildlife habitat.

At the same time cherish your heretics. This is a solid, fairly evenhanded treatment of this particular heresy. It’s the best volume I’ve seen that presents the scientific case (such as it is) for skepticism of the standard claims of anthropogenic global warming. There might be something in these skepticisms, there might not. We should fund more of these heretics. That’s science at work.

-- KK 02/16/09


"Much public discussion on global warming is underpinned by two partly self-contradictory assumptions. The first is that there is a 'consensus' of qualified scientists that dangerous human-caused global warming is upon us; and the second is that although there are 'two sides to the debate,' the dangerous-warming side is over-whelmingly the stronger. Both assertions are unsustainable. The first because science is not, nor ever has been, about consensus, but about experimental and observational data and testable hypotheses. Second, regarding the number of sides to the debate, the reality is that small parts of the immensely complex climate system are better or less understood--depending upon the subject--by many different groups of experts. No one scientist, however brilliant, 'understands' climate change, and there is no general theory of climate nor likely to be one in the near future. In effect, there are nearly as many sides to the climate-change debate as there are expert scientists who consider it."

As CO2 levels rise it takes more and more CO2 to produce additional temperature increases: "[T]he relationship between increasing carbon dioxide and increasing temperature is logarithmic, which lessens the forcing effect of each successive increment of carbon dioxide."

The way the problem is customarily presented to the public is seriously misleading. The public is led to believe that the carbon dioxide problem has a single cause and a single consequence. The single cause is fossil-fuel burning; the single consequence is global warming. In reality there are multiple causes and multiple consequences. The atmospheric carbon dioxide that drives global warming is only the tail of the dog. The dog that wags the tail is the global ecology: forests, farms, and swamps, as well as power stations, factories, and automobiles. And the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has other consequences that may be at least as important as global warming--increasing crop yields and growth of forests, for example. To handle the problem intelligently, we need to understand all the causes and all the consequences... -- Freeman Dyson

My deniers certainly demonstrate that the climate-change doomsayers should not have the last word, but they also demonstrate that they, themselves, can't have the last word either. After all, most of my deniers disagree with each other as well as with the doomsayers. They can't all be right. They could all be wrong. Just as the doomsayers, the great majority of whom I believe to be entirely sincere and highly qualified, could all be wrong.

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